Batman Arkham City is a sequel we here at RipTen have been following since it was first announced at the Video Game Awards in 2009. We analyzed the teaser trailer like it was a hair follicle tagged on a Gil Grissom led crime scene investigation. Many of those speculations have since been confirmed and E3 2011 now marks our first chance to dig into the actual gameplay. Does it live up to the hype? Are there enough new aspects to warrant a sequel or will it just be more of the same? Let’s find out.

The playable area in Arkham City is about four times as big as the Arkham Asylum, though our E3 experience was limited to a much smaller chunk, with portions of the map displaying as “inaccessible.” That said, even when fully unlocked, you still won’t be able to fully explore all of Gotham City. While that may come as a bummer to some of you, the plot related reasoning behind the city limitations made absolute sense. According to Rocksteady, the new Mayor of Gotham has sectioned off the rioting portion, once again leaving it to you to get the situation under control. In other words, you escape the confines of one prison for a slightly larger one. This gives you both an expanded playable environment that’s big enough to lose yourself without constantly losing sight of the task at hand and a feasible explanation for the restraints that limit it. I’ll take quarantine city roadblocks over unexplained invisible walls or fatigue inducing waters any day.

It’s been revealed that Arkham City allows you to play as both Catwoman and Batman, though I only got to play as The Dark Knight during my session. In terms of total game time, we were told that Arkham City will offer about 25 hours of story-based gameplay with side quests tacking on another 15 or so hours and bringing the grand total to approximately 40 hours. That estimate remains in line with our original report from March of this year in which Rocksteady Marketing Manager Dax Ginn stated that “a normal player who knows their action adventure games” could complete the core narrative path in “20-24 hours” — though that same report also quoted him saying that their QA team members could fast track the same core path “in about 8 hours.” Those guys must look really good in tights.

The sequel introduces a tweak to feature we quickly became comfortable with (and possibly over reliant on) in the original … Detective Mode. While it remains a useful mechanic in Arkham City, some deliberate visual cutbacks on the part of Rocksteady will likely ensure that gamers won’t want to spend extended periods of time with the mode enabled.  There isn’t any sort of depleting battery that limits your time using the mode, instead the mode itself has had it’s level of detail drastically reduced, which makes it far less visually appealing. The hope is that you still use it when needed but close it out when you don’t and allow yourself to be taken by surprise a bit more this time around.

In addition to modifications like the one outlined above, Rocksteady added a slew of new elements to Arkham City as well. Bat-Signals now mark your objectives in the night time sky and you’ve got some new time saving upgrades to get you where you need to go in record time. Batman will now be able to accelerate his zip-line movement with a simple double tap, getting him from one location to another faster than ever before. Rooftop destination more than a hop and a zip away? No problem. You’ll be able to inch your way closer with gravity cheating downward and upward glides that keep you airborne and in pursuit. And if you realize that your target destination is directly below you at any given time, a quick dive bomb will send you rocketing towards your target in a hurry.

Hand to hand combat has also been reworked with new combo moves, aerial attacks, and disarm retaliations that allow you to use your enemies devices against them with punishing quickness. And while dishing out damage is always nice, you’ll also want to keep an eye out for certain henchmen that stand out from the crowd before unleashing. These glow outlined baddies can be interrogated for information as long as you don’t beat them to a pulp the old fashioned way first. You’ll instead want to stun them while you finish off their friends, allowing you ample time to persuasively question them in peace. This feature was limited to Riddler mobs which unlocked new riddle locations upon successful interrogation in the E3 build, but our kind-hearted overseer hinted that we may be able to interrogate other mob types for additional purposes in the final build.

As the magnitude of your task grows in Arkham City, so does the presence of the Riddler within it. The King of Conundrums finally makes a visual appearance in the game, and if that’s not enough, he’ll now be able to dangle helpless citizens in front of you via the addition of challenge rooms designed to test your gadget gusto and puzzle solving skills … think SAW with far less bloody gore. Hopefully this makes the puzzle solver inside you grin from ear to ear.

Gadget lovers will be happy to know that Arkham City adds at least two confirmed notches to the most famous utility belt known to man in the form of smoke bombs used to confuse enemies and an audio enhancing broadcast tracer device. I used the broadcast tracer to hone in on a conversation that triggered a cinematic event featuring a gun-toting Two-Face and a physically compromised yet unflinchingly seductive Catwoman.

Of course there’s much more to the game than what was revealed/accessible at E3, but considering I lost my telepathic powers in the flood of 1972, this preview was only based on what I was able to experience in the physical realm on the show floor at the Los Angeles Convention Center. This means that I can’t really give any first hand impressions of new characters like Hugo Strange, The Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Harley Quinn, and Calendar Man.

From what I saw in the thirty or so minutes that I spent with the game at E3, Arkham City looks and feels just as gritty and dark as the Asylum that preceded it, but unlike say … The Hangover Part Two (which still managed to make me laugh) it doesn’t simply change the setting and regurgitate the same proven formula for success. Rocksteady Studios did a great job of staying true to the original, introducing new and worthwhile gaming enhancements, and expanding the playable world without turning the game into a full-fledged sandbox experience.

Here’s to getting my hands on the final build in October, sometime after my honeymoon and before the start of BlizzCon. The fate of Gotham City relies on it.